Nils Westergard
Image via Nils Westergard
Image via Nils Westergard
Words by: Joseph Genest
Video by: MYLO Video Productions
“Everyone’s seen the Mona Lisa, but then you go to France and it’s underwhelming. Is it a shitty painting? No, but your concept of it is so much larger in your head. You have a much better appreciation for the details from the images you see online than you’re ever going to get in reality with the painting.”

The experience Nils Westergard describes has become a meme: waiting in a massive line at The Louvre behind a crowd all with their phones in the air, vying to take a mediocre photo of da Vinci’s most iconic work for Instagram. Our photos of the experience are more bragging rights to our friends than it is to capture and revisit later. As an artist who grew up in the digital age, he knows that the online audience will always be attracted to the masterful real-life details of his works (even if they can’t quite see them on a 3x6 screen).

With murals all over the world, Westergard first established his roots in Richmond, Virginia, calling it home for over a decade. A couple of years ago, he moved to Amsterdam for what he described as a “call that will never come again in my life.” 

With his fellow MSC Crew members all based in Europe, it was a fitting home to expand his career. In between painting murals and taking commissions, he’s recently been working on The Amsterdam Cyclist, a project akin to Humans of New York, depicting the intricacies of Amsterdam bike culture. 
“In Amsterdam, everyone’s on a bike. The whole society is built around bikes. You see a lot of fascinating people. Ridiculous bikes, ridiculous people. It’s the great cultural leveler- everyone has something to do with a bike.”

Westergard describes the Amsterdam Cyclist as a “cultural education” on the Dutch. On any given day, stepping outside can feel like “a David Attenborough film”, documenting the cyclists with his camera and notepad.
Although The Amsterdam Cyclist has a central theme, Westergard doesn’t attribute any sort of narrative to being a part of his usual inspiration. While some subjects are heartfelt and personal, other times he’s inspired by just a ‘vibe’.
Once in a while, Westergard’s inspiration can involve a sense of technical prowess. Working primarily with stencils, he’s recently transitioned from grayscale to vibrant, lively colors, evolving his style even further.
“I always knew I could’ve been doing full color for a long time but once I go there, I’m not able to go back. Every painting is going to take five times as long because I know it has to look good. Now that I’ve done it, I look at all my old paintings and say ‘I should’ve done this in color’. I have all the stencils, so in theory, I could go back and color block stencils and redo every painting. But, you’ve got to move forward.”
Improving his craft is a focal point of why Westergard has found success in building a portfolio of walls around the globe, which has helped build a solid following online. With Instagram becoming a prominent home for visual artists and muralists, it can be tempting to make work for the internet. However, for him, every finished product is displayed with the naked eye in mind.
“I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing. For me, I want to cut my stencils by hand. I want the painting to look good right there on the wall. But, I also acknowledge that a lot of it’s digital. Most of my fans who interact with my work only ever see it digitally. If you’re a fan of my work in France, you probably have never seen it IRL but I can’t say that person is any less supportive.”

Growing up outside of Washington, DC, Westergard recalls that a lot of the art he looked up to could only be accessed online. Much of the mural culture he followed was more prominent in Europe and Australia, with the only stateside pockets being New York and Los Angeles. Still, he finds it ‘disheartening’ when he admires a work on the internet, only to be disappointed by its in-person details.

While the integrity he puts into his work is often admired by his fans, they also aren’t always aware of the amount of labor it takes. In fact, many are unaware he cuts stencils.
Does the process make the art more valuable? For most casual fans, the currency of likes and reposts is more of their speed than spending cash on paintings. Even quality prints can be expensive, which is why social can be a great floor for support. As Westergard points out, social audiences are a great soundboard but can also accelerate the hype machine that causes many famous murals to barely see the light of day.
Not long after our conversation, two men were arrested for ripping a stop sign post that Banksy had painted military drones on as a ceasefire call to Gaza. As Westergard predicted, the England-based artist's work was ripped out immediately and proudly displayed on social media (which, in turn, led to the arrest).
Westergard remarked he’s “amazed at artists who have a career with little to no social media presence at all”, which is becoming few and far between. However, despite growing up in the internet era, he recognizes that traditional art institutions like galleries are how many artists find buyers. Recently landing a good gallerist, the value of them to the ecosystem is just as strong as ever, often knowing a few collectors off-hand that could be interested in works.
In 2024, Westergard is seeking out a publisher for The Amsterdam Cyclist, which he hopes is in “the airport and museum gift shops”. He’s also gearing up for another year of traveling with The MSC Crew. Even with an eclectic collection of subjects already, he’s enthusiastic about continuing to document the cyclists that inhabit his overseas home.
“The bikes are fun. That about sums it up: bikes are just fun.”
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